Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Terrinoth #23 - The Haunted City II

Climax of the campaign arc - Percy confronts Markos, Strigoi faces the Undead Ironbound while Entana attempts to disable it, and Gio finishes off the last of the skeletons
Campaign Diary

Our heroes pursued Karpel into the winding alleys, and when they were close to catching him an assassin leapt from a rooftop and landed in front of him. Percy stepped forward to shield Karpel, but could not prevent him from being cut by the assassin's blade.

As Gio, Strigoi, and Entana moved in to protect Karpel, two more assassins appeared. In the ensuing chaos Karpel was stabbed twice more, two of the assassins laid dead on the ground, and the city watch was closing in even as the last assassin fled the scene. Percy stemmed Karpels bleeding with magic, but found that he was still weak from the poison on the assassins' blades. Carrying the ex-gravedigger between them as if he was drunk, the party managed to slip away and bring Karpel back to his home.

(Click here for PC profiles)

Once the effects of the poison had been neutralised, Karpel began hurriedly packing his bag, intent on fleeing the city. He revealed that he had previously smuggled bodies to Markos, but once their illicit trade was revealed the latter had not contacted him since parting with a stern warning to not speak to anyone about their business. He had little more to tell, except that he suspected that the recent disappearance of two Ironbound may be the work of Markos. The party escorted Karpel to the city gates, perhaps as much out of a desire to ensure his safety as out of the hope that an attacker would appear who would lead them to Markos, but Karpel left the city unmolested.

Using a letter of introduction obtained from Blasius, our heroes managed to meet with Kontesta, Master Engineer at the Iron Tower, hoping to learn more about the missing Ironbound. Despite their efforts, the tight-lipped engineer would not reveal anything of importance. But as the party left the office, Gio pocketed some papers left on the desk.

Once out of the Iron Tower, the party read the papers: they were a report filed by the city watch on the disappearance of two Ironbound three weeks ago, and the files of one Ducat, an engineer fired two months ago for poor performance. The party decided to pay a visit to Ducat at the address on his file.

When knocking on Ducat's front door did not produce a response, Percy and Strigoi went to the back door, only to see two assassins crash through the rear windows of the house. At the same moment the front door open, and Ducat emerged, looking panicked.

"Who are you?" he asked Entana.

"The man who is going to keep you alive," the wizard replied.

Ducat grabbed on to Entana's sleeve, and together with Gio the three raced towards the main street. The two assassins followed. Percy leapt through a broken window while Strigoi crashed through the rear door, and gave chase.

Entana summoned up a fog cloud to provide cover from their pursuers, and pulled Ducat into an alley, while Gio and Percy sowed confusion by misdirecting the two assassins. With their trickery, the party succeeded in bringing Ducat back to the Moonshade Inn without bloodshed or drawing the attention of the city watch.

There, Ducat revealed that his gambling addiction had cost him his employment at the Iron Tower, and Markos had sought him out after his dismissal, and had offered him money to pay off his debts for information related to the Ironbound. At first the information he required were innocuous, but when Markos asked how an Ironbound could be disabled, Ducat (or so he claimed) would not tell him, until Markos threatened him with harm. Thus, with Ducat's assistance, Markos and his accomplices were able to disable two Ironbound, and transport them to a hidden laboratory in the catacombs of the city.

Ducat drew a map of the way to the laboratory, and warned them that Markos had undead minions in his lair; and in exchange for escort to the city gates, Ducat told the party how an Ironbound could be disabled: the Ironbound are each powered by a runebound shard within their armoured chests, and the way to access this shard was via a hatch on its back. Armed with their newfound information, our heroes prepared to venture into the catacombs.

Entering the sewers beneath Nerekhall, the party followed Ducat's map to an ancient archway that led deeper into the catacombs of the city. Our heroes passed through the archway, and descended a long flight of stairs, until they came upon a set of heavy oaken doors.

The party pushed open the doors to find a hall guarded by six skeletal warriors. With the use of a well aimed flask of oil and torch, followed by cold steel, our heroes made short work of the guardians, and pressed on.

Finally, they came before another set of double doors, beyond which, according to Ducat, lay the laboratory of the Mad Mage Kovac. But even before they could open the doors, they heard Markos' voice from behind them:

"Leave? In the moment of my triumph? I think you rather overestimate my old classmate!"

Gio pushed open the doors: beyond them was a long colonnaded hall, lined with racks and operating tables, upon which were decomposed bodies. Rusty chains ran through steel rings on the columns and walls, as though they were iron webs spun by a giant spider. In the far end of the hall a short flight of steps led to a domed circular room; arcane runes were scratched into the walls of the room, and on its floor mystical circles, carved into the stone, glowed with blue light. In the centre of the room laid an armoured skeleton. On one side stood Markos. A cloaked and armoured figure was leaving the room via a door on the side even as our heroes entered - as he turned to look at them, our heroes saw that his face was a fleshless skull, and he wore an iron crowned helm.

From the shadows behind the columns four skeletal warriors stepped forth. Markos taunted our heroes, challenging them to come closer to him. As they charged towards the evil necromancer, he made arcane gestures with his hands, and a thick green mist formed in the centre of the hall, its acrid stench choking our heroes. At the same time, the armoured skeleton within the magical circles rose, and its skeletal head was wreathed in flames; it started walking towards the hall, a greataxe in one hand...

The cloud thickened and soon blinded our heroes. Percy stumbled about, and managed to find the wall, which led her to the edge of the cloud, from where she could see Markos. The necromancer cast bolts of green ray at her, causing strength to drain from her limbs - it was only with the power of Kellos that she managed to stay conscious.

Entana likewise stumbled about, until he came upon one of the wooden operating tables. As he tried to orientate himself, he felt a whoosh beside his ear, followed by a loud thud - he turned to see the flaming skull of the skeletal warrior, clad in the unmistakable armour of an Ironbound, just a foot behind him. The Undead Ironbound raised his axe, and swung... and once more missed!

Entana summoned up a gust of wind, and while it failed to push the Undead Ironbound back, it blew a clear corridor in the cloud, which allowed Strigoi to see him and come to his aid. The orc warrior fell upon the undead, and although he rained blow after blow on the armoured body, the Undead Ironbound would not fall. It turned its attention onto Strigoi, and slowly pushed him back, until the orc's back was against one of the columns. The fight turned against Strigoi - his body was covered in many great wounds, but he too clinged on and would not go down.

This was the distraction Entana needed - using the thieves' tools he found on one thugs who attacked them at The Hollow Way Inn, he managed to pry open the hatch on the Undead Ironbound's back - inside it he saw the purple glow of the Death Runebound shard, but he could not reach it.

In the far end of the hall Percy gathered up her courage, and charged Markos. Her attacked caused the necromancer to dispel the noxious cloud and instead turn his magic on her.

Gio, who had up to this point been incapacitated by the cloud, could now see clearly. He despatched the last of the skeletal warriors, and ran to Entana's aid - and not a moment too soon, for Strigoi had finally succumbed to the Undead Ironbound's relentless attack.

Leaping onto the back of the Undead Ironbound, Gio sank his shortsword into the hatch, and the runebound shard sprang out. The flame about the skull of the Ironbound extinguished, and its armoured form collapsed to the floor.

Now Markos was alone. But he would not flee. Even as Percy and Gio attacked him, he focused his fury on Entana, casting bolt after bolt of life-draining green light on his former classmate, until at last Gio's sword ended his life.

Percy healed Strigoi's wounds, and Entana retrieved the Death Runebound shard. They searched the hall and found the lost diaries of the Mad Mage Kovac, but ominously, there was no sign of a second Ironbound. Remembering their order to seal the lab, they decided to use the chains on the columns to pull them down, causing the roof to come down, burying the Undead Ironbound.

They then dragged Markos' body to the sewers, burnt it, and for good measure kept some of the ashes, and threw some into the sewerage. When they finally emerged from the sewers it was already dark.

Prepping and Running the Game

This session marks the end of the first campaign arc, which we started some six months ago.

The plot was a continuation from the previous session, and was again a rather straightforward investigation scenario.

The chase scene in the middle of the scenario was played using the Skills Challenge rules mechanics, which I learned from watching a Matt Colville video. It took a little longer than I hoped for as both the players and I were new to the concept, but narratively I think we did OK.

The finale fight took around an hour. I plotted out Markos' spells weeks ago, and had even made a template for the Stinking Cloud spell from a green transparency sheet I had left over from a terrain project. The spell was a little too effective, as it left Gio incapacitated for several turns, which of course was no fun for the player; I was aware that the spell could have such an effect, but had decided to take the risk anyway. To make the spell even more effective, I ruled that when inside the cloud, a PC may not always move in the direction he *thinks* he is moving, but had them roll a die to decide where he moved to. The result was that only one of the PCs actually moved out of the spell area.

The dice-rolls during the fight was memorable. The first two rolls I made for the Undead Ironbound were literally a 1 followed by a 2. Had even a single blow landed, Entana would have been taken out of the fight and the game would have ended very differently. I could not roll above a 6 for the next few rounds, until Strigoi joined the fight. Then followed an impressive exchange of axe-swings as Strigoi's player rolled a few crits, scoring more than a hundred points of damage in 3 or 4 turns. However, my rolls got better too, and Strigoi actually went down twice - the first time only negated by the orcish tenacity rule.

Tactically, it was a challenging fight for the players. Percy, being the only one who could reach Markos, had to decide between fighting him alone and preventing him from using his spells on the other PCs, or supporting them in their fight with the Undead Ironbound. Entana had to decide whether to try to disable the Undead Ironbound "manually", something which he isn't exactly good at, or to use his magic - as it turned out he made the right decision: I gave the Undead Ironbound a Helmed Horror's stat block, and made him immune to the three spells that Entana had most often employed against Mondock and his thugs.

With this arc concluded, I asked the players which part of Terrinoth they wished to explore instead. The vote was two for Al-Kalim and one for Lorimor, and one "anything". I made the call to let them go to Al-Kalim, but then I realised that they would have to stop at Lorimor on their way there, so everyone will get what they want after all.

I still have several weeks to prep a full arc based in Al-Kalim; for now they must return to Greyhaven, spend the winter there, then tie up some loose ends at Nornholt on their way back south. This will give me some time to think of some adventures for them to go on in Lorimor, and for the plastic Arab figures I ordered immediately after the game to arrive and be painted.

For now I am thinking of repackaging some Al-Qadim modules for their Al-Kalim arc, but if you have any suggestion on other Arabian-themed modules, I would be happy to hear them.

Thank you.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Terrinoth #22 - The Haunted City

Guests of The Hollow Way Inn are besieged!

Campaign Diary

Entana, Gio, and Percy made their way south to Nornholt, where they ran into Strigoi at an inn - the orc fighter had heard of the tale of Gio the Gnomish Hero from bards in Tamalir, and had journeyed to the town in hope of picking up their trail.

(Click here for PC profiles)

In the months he was apart from the group Strigoi had tracked Shaglot down and vanquished him in combat. The party brought Strigoi up to date on their quest, but conveniently left out the rewards promised to them.

Now one stronger, our heroes made their way westwards to Nerekhall, where they hoped to find the hidden laboratory of the Mad Mage Kovac. Three days after leaving Nornholt, they arrived at the Hollow Way Inn, a roadside establishment a day's travel from Nerekhall. Despite it being in the middle of winter, the small inn had a few other guests: Louj and Lerj, gnomish merchants on their way to Nerekhall, Elvahn, aspiring elven opera composer, also traveling to Nerekhall to apply for a place in the Academy, and Khertral, a steel merchant from Forge on his way home.

Louj and Lerj recognised Gio from the bards' tales, and became quite excited. As they asked Gio for more tales of his adventures, Elvahn became inspired, and decided to compose an opera based on them. While Gio regaled his fans with stories, the rest of the party learned from Khertral that the magistrates of the city had put in an urgent order for high quality steel, but were unable to determine the reason for the urgency.

The guests retired to the upper floor of the inn after a night of drinking and singing. Late at night Percy was awakened by the smell of smoke. Looking out of the windows, she saw the orange glow of flames - the inn was on fire! She quickly roused the rest of the party and the guests.

Someone had put a cart each against the front and back door of the inn, piled firewood on them, and set the whole on fire - the guests were all trapped inside the building. When they tried to exit through the windows, they found that the inn had been surrounded by a dozen archers, who stood ready to shoot those who tried to exit. Strigoi spied a floating, glowing skull watching them from across a stream outside the inn: Mondock has returned!

The party donned their gear, and herded the other guests to the ground floor. Seizing a chair as his shield, Strigoi burst through one of the windows, followed by Percy. The pair was immediately set on by the archers who were outside. Mondock closed in, shooting beams of sickly green light from his eyes at Strigoi, which caused him to feel ill and weak. Strigoi tried to push the burning cart to block the bridge across the stream to prevent more attackers from joining the fight, but in his weakened state he failed to do so.

Entana and Gio leapt through the window and joined the fight even as more attackers closed in. Entana was struck by Mondock's green beams too, which made him feel faint. The undead necromancer and his minions surrounded the party and slowly closed in on them. Things looked bleak for our heroes.

Then Gio called on Fortuna's help and caused Mondock to be seized by an irresistible urge to laugh. Seeing the attackers all close together, Percy called upon Kellos to strike them with a thunderclap, which caused several to fall to the ground.

Strigoi summoned his reserve strength and set about with his great axe, and a few more enemies fell.  Seeing the tide of the battle turn against him, Mondock decided to flee, but was struck by spells from Percy and Entana, and destroyed. However, his minions would not surrender, and fought to the last man.

With their foes vanquished, the party, with the help of the other guests and the inn staff put out the fire. Afterwards, they gathered the pieces of Mondock's skull and ground them to dust, and for good measure split the dust between them, and threw part of it into the stream. When they were done it was dawn, and the party continued their way to Nerekhall.

The city of Nerekhall was small compared to the likes of Tamalir, and it had a brooding air about it. As they passed through the city gates, their names and purpose of visit were logged by a clerk. On the corners of the streets stood Ironbound, silent sentinels. The party lodged at the Moonshade Inn, recommended by Khertral the dwarf, and there they planned their next move.

The next morning they went to the Blasius Trading House, where they learned that the person who had paid for the letter of credit (see here) had a description that matched Markos of Nerekhall, and that he was a student at the faculty of Medicine at the Academy.

Not wanting to alert Markos to their presence, our heroes decided against enquiring at the Academy, and chose instead to visit the black market to see if they could learn if anyone was buying contraband magical items - something which they suspected Markos would have been doing. Unfortunately for them, it was obvious to the locals that they were from out of town, and they learned nothing of value. Just then, they saw the sign to "Arnan's Rare Bookstore", which they decided to visit. Inside, they found the proprietor Arnan the dwarf, but no rare books. They did learn from the talkative dwarf that Markos had previously visited the bookstore and bought volumes on anatomy and (strangely) metallurgy. He also revealed that Markos frequented The Green Dragon, a tavern popular with students of the Academy.

As our heroes made their way across the town square to the Green Dragon, they saw a procession of the cult of Kellos. As Percy looked upon the worshipers, one of the priests turned towards her and she was stunned to see that his eyes glowed with a bright light. Leaving the rest to go to tavern she joined the worshipers as they entered the church, but once inside she could not find the priest.

At The Green Dragon, Entana managed to find a couple of students from the Academy, who revealed with much schadenfreude that Markos had been expelled a few months ago for obtaining cadavers illicitly from a grave-digger. With this lead, our heroes proceeded to the undertaker's guild and learned that the grave-digger in league with Markos, one Karpel, had also been expelled from the guild and now spent most of the day drunk at the The Brown Bottle, a tavern in the poorer part of town. With the sun setting soon, our heroes hurried there, only to find many drunks matching the description of Karpel in the taproom.

Strigoi called out: Karpel!

Several drunks lifted their heads to look at the new arrivals... and then one stood up and bolted for the backdoor!

Our heroes chased the man down the winding alleys. Karpel tried his best to shake his pursuers, but soon they closed in one him... but just as they were about to reach him, a dark form jumped from the surrounding rooftops and landed before him. In the dim light of the alleys our heroes spotted the glint of metal...

Prepping and Running the Game

This was the first game of the year and I was looking forward to having Strigoi's player rejoin the group.

This session was loosely based on The Haunted City, the official FFG Realms of Terrinoth scenario available on their website. I had taken the name of the inn and its guests (as well as their motivations), and the module also contained a lot of description of Nerekhall which I used in my game.

The mentions of Gio's fame is by now a bit of an in-joke for the party - Gio's long term goal is to become a household name in Terrinoth, and for a while now Gio's player had him asking those whom he had helped to remember his name; I thought it would be nice to show that his efforts have borne fruits. Of course, to a GM, a PC's fame can be a double-edged sword that can be turned against him and his party...

The only fight of the game took place early in the game, and nearly resulted in a TPK. The bad guys were a formidable force, with a boss with powerful ranged attack that imposed a 'poisoned' condition on those he attacked, and the large number of minions demonstrated the effect of the 'action economy'. The players responded well to the challenge, focusing on first disabling Mondock before he could do more harm, and then using area-of-effect spells against the weaker minions.

They also acted in a suitably paranoid fashion when they decided to grind Mondock's skull to dust, which is as well - left alone he would have regenerated after an hour. I was hoping to save Mondock for the boss fight in the next session, and so made him flee when he was at 80% hp level - but the players were relentless, and I did not want to cheat them of their well-earned victory.

From the plot point-of-view, killing Mondock and his minions give the PCs a huge advantage as Markos now has no certain knowledge of their arrival in Nerekhall.

The second half of the game was an investigation. I decided to keep things loose and have more than one way for the PCs to track Markos down. To do this I began by thinking about what Markos had been doing after he trapped Wilfred in his tower. I decided that he would need a supply of corpses, and perhaps even a 'deactivated' Ironbound. This meant that someone would have had to obtain these for him, and so I knew I needed a grave-digger NPC, and an engineer/mechanic.

The grave-digger and the illegal body-snatching would be the perfect reason for Markos to be expelled from The Academy (and go literally underground), and the theft of an Ironbound would of course put Nerekhall's ruling body in a bit of a panic, which resulted in the urgent order of steel for the manufacture of more Ironbound and arms/armour.

Although I had the University faculty demand that their quest be executed in utmost secrecy, I was fully prepared for them to blow their cover and march right into The Academy or The Iron Tower (Nerekhall's government building) and spill the beans and ask for help. There were too many options available to them for me to prepare for every possible encounter, so I just made short notes of a few places of interest in Nerekhall, and left the rest to them. Other than those mentioned in the module, I also added a few locations from the Streets of Zobeck supplement by Kobold Press, and was rewarded when the players decided to visit the Rare Bookstore - the fact that there were no rare books in the store was supposed to be a joke: the 'rare' part referred to a bookstore owned by a dwarf.

This session was notable to me in a couple ways: I had to RP more NPCs than I usually do, including a dozen named NPCs, and the session did not end with a fight.

I realised a few days before the session that almost all of my games ended in a big fight, followed by a quick denouement. This is of course a rather classic structure for RPGs, and was reinforced during my Space Opera campaign, which almost always had three fights per session. The B Team games are all self-contained and thus also follow a similar structure, but with the continuous narrative of A Team's play, I can afford to change things up a little, and end a session on a cliff-hanger.

The next session will be in two weeks, when the PCs will finally come face-to-face with Markos, and the "Necromancer" arc of the campaign will end. I plan afterwards to tie up some loose ends, and then let the players pick which region of Mennaras they wish to visit in the next arc - hopefully they choose somewhere 'exotic', like Al-Kalim or Isheim.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

2018 in Review and Looking Ahead

2018 had been a leaner year for wargaming than 2017 was, but on the flip side I played around a hundred hours of RPG, and look set to play around that same number of hour in 2019.

As regular readers will notice, the focus of this blog has shifted from wargaming to RPG in the past couple of years, especially from the middle of 2018, when I decided to document what went on in my gaming sessions, as well as my thoughts during the preparation and the running of the game. It's a way for me to keep track of what happened during each session, the story hooks that I have dropped, and also a way to remind myself of why I made certain GMing decisions.

I am very happy with the way my Terrinoth campaign (more accurately campaigns) have turned out; having two teams of PCs in the same game world and time-line has allowed me to use more setting and module material, and gave us all more flexibility in the scheduling of the game.

Having two teams of PCs also means I now have a larger stable of regular players, three of whom are GMs themselves. This, added to the more open, sandbox nature of the B Team campaign meant that the storyline for B Team has developed in a more organic fashion, prompted mainly by how the PCs have interacted with the NPCs and the setting. There are multiple story threads which I am weaving together to tie up loose ends which were left over from earlier sessions.

B Team will also benefit from Matt Colville's Strongholds and Followers supplement: two of the PCs have earned "strongholds" during the course of the game, and if time and inclination allow, we may pursue this aspect of gaming in the future.

On the A Team front I am close to completing the story arcs for two of the PCs, and hope to develop and close those for the remaining PCs over the course of this year.

I started GMing more than thirty years ago, but really it has only been in the past decade or so that I approached it as more of a craft than just a game. One of the things that I have adopted is to incorporate the PCs' backstories and their goals and motivations into the story. This can be difficult in a campaign where there are (currently) 9 characters, but it's also rewarding.

The Terrinoth adventures are scheduled to continue for at least the first four months of this year, after which I may switch to a Sorcery! campaign from the last week of April to the first week of August (projected 13 sessions) - this spans the June school holidays period, during which many people with school-age children go on vacation, so we may be seeing a new line-up of players for this short campaign.

The Sorcery! campaign is just one of those "bucket list" hobby projects for me (like the 10mm FPW project which we completed a few years ago, and the Arab Revolt project which I still hope to one day do). For the plot of the campaign I am planning to stick to the premise and basic structure of the original Steve Jackson story: a quest to retrieve a stolen crown, taking the party through a series of villages in the borderlands, through a lawless city, through the dangerous wilderness beyond, and finally into the Archmage's fortress.

I have not yet decided on which set of rules to use for this campaign, although I am rather keen to stick to a magic system that requires specific components, as in the original gamebook rules. The Advanced Fighting Fantasy rules are probably too simple for my tastes, but I look forward to recommendations from my readers.

From the middle of August to the middle of November I hope to switch from fantasy to sci-fi and run a short campaign (again of around 12 sessions) using the upcoming new edition of Savage Worlds. I backed the boxed set edition of this new edition, which is scheduled to deliver in June 2019; factoring for delivery and delay, I think a mid-August start is reasonable.

I have still not yet decided the subject of the campaign: it may be Season 2 of our Space Opera campaign we played in 2017, or a mash-up of the Shadowrun campaign we played in 2016 and the Gamma World mini-campaign we played in 2018. The first will be based on the Seven Worlds campaign, a Savage Worlds campaign (albeit in the by-now older edition), while the second will be a homebrew campaign set in a post-apocalyptic world where the cities are populated by humans ruled by mega-corporations runned by vampires, and where the wilderness are populated by wasteland warriors and mutant animals and plants. Both campaigns will see the return of characters from the previous campaign/s, and both excite me, but I imagine eight months is a long term in the hobby world and who knows what other setting will tempt us between now and then?

Amidst all this I am hoping to get more painting done. Among the kickstarters that my friends and I have backed together in 2018 are West Wind 15mm Dark Ages and Fireforge 32mm fantasy figures; I have pledged to paint up 3 units of Gothic Heavy foot to supplement wahj's Late Roman force, which hopefully will give us the impetus to get back to some historical wargaming soon.

I am also looking at some 48 castings of undead foot, horses and dogs to be added to the 19 Rune Wars castings I have primed... I had best get started.